In Massachusetts, 1 in 7 seniors living in elder-care facilities has died of COVID-19. That death rate, as the Globe’s Spotlight Team reported in its recent investigation about death amid the pandemic, is among the highest in the country.
But for Governor Charlie Baker’s administration, for too long, aging adults and veterans were not the top priority, the investigation found, even when it was known early on that nursing homes were at high risk of outbreaks.
Six months later, the pandemic is more or less under control in the state. The governor deserves credit for that. But we can’t afford any more blind spots. The public needs to keep a close eye on the trends — and hold the state accountable when required.
That’s why it’s worrisome that the Baker administration has provided only partial access to important COVID infection data in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, even after the governor signed a law to enhance data reporting.
Such lack of transparency and reluctance to disclose key COVID information is not new. Early on, the state wouldn’t release COVID infection data by city and town, making it hard to track geographical hotspots. More opacity could have deadly consequences: obscuring the scope and pattern of the pandemic makes it harder for local government officials, epidemiologists, and the public at-large to react to potential hot spots.
In June, Baker signed a broad data collection law that mandated, among other requirements, more information be disclosed about infections at nursing homes, assisted living centers, and other long-term senior care facilities. But the administration is not in full compliance. For instance, the state’s Department of Public Health is required to report the daily number of cases and deaths for both staff and residents at these facilities, but it is only reporting cases from each institution in broad ranges, such as “1-10” or “>30” when the new statute requires precise numbers. Additionally, DPH is failing to disclose the cumulative number of deaths at specific assisted living institutions.
The Baker administration did warn in June, shortly after the governor signed the data reporting legislation, that full disclosure of deaths at nursing homes would take time. But it has already been four months and the gaps persist. The administration has said, via a spokesperson, that the state has provided more data than many other states.
Separately, but related to the issue of tracking COVID-related information in nursing homes, the Baker administration is either slow-walking or flat-out ignoring key public records requests from the Globe.
In June, reporter Todd Wallack filed a request for email messages sent to or received by Secretary Marylou Sudders about nursing homes that had significant outbreaks, like the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke, where at least 76 people have died. The Executive Office of Health and Human Services agreed to provide approximately 800 emails responsive to Wallack’s request at a cost of $450, which the Globe immediately paid. EOHHS kept saying it was working on the request but no records were provided for three months despite multiple follow-ups from Globe lawyers and an order from the state’s Supervisor of Records Rebecca Murray for the government to comply with the law. It wasn’t until the Globe threatened EOHHS with a lawsuit that Wallack finally received 69 emails and was told he would receive the rest by mid-October.
In another request, Globe reporter Hanna Krueger asked EOHHS in early April for emails, texts, and any other communication between former Holyoke Soldiers' Home Superintendent Bennett Walsh and HHS officials during the last two weeks in March. Initially, the Baker administration denied the request citing an exemption due to the ongoing investigation at the facility. The Globe appealed to Murray, who determined that the existence of an investigation did not entitle EOHHS to withhold all of the records in their entirety, and ordered EOHHS to provide further response to the Globe. But Krueger has yet to hear from the Baker administration despite repeated follow-ups asking for a response.
The underlying problem resides with our public records law, of course. Without real teeth to it, the supervisor of records has no ability to enforce records disclosure.
Ultimately, this is about accountability. “The state’s early response to the predictable crisis in the nursing home population was halting, chaotic, and in the end, disastrous,” the Spotlight Team wrote. Releasing records could make it less likely that the state will repeat the same deadly mistakes.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.